Sherlock Holmes and the Cult of Characterisation, Part 1 of ?

First, a brief apology for the lack of posts for the last few days. I’ve not actually been able to write anything, except for work and the odd tweet, for six days because of RSI. I’ve now bought an ergonomic keyboard and a gel wristpad, and so I’m going to try to get some writing done again.

While I’ve been away, it’s been one of those weeks where a lot of things come up in different contexts, all of which seem to point to one big idea, which I’m not quite sure how to express, so I’m going to do one of those series of posts I do where I try to untangle several threads of thought. On the way, if I can remain coherent, I’ll be talking about Sherlock Holmes, media portrayals of autism, the process of adaptation, and feminism.

But to start, let’s talk about writing fiction.

I’ve been working on a novel for the last few months. Surprisingly little of that time has been spent with the actual writing. In part that’s because the book I’m working on is an alternate-history novel, featuring many real-life characters, and so I’m reading biographies of them, books on the areas they worked in, and so forth — this is requiring far more research than any of the books I’ve written before (with the music books I knew the subjects well before writing anything — I had to check facts, but not discover new ones).

But there’s another reason as well. My previous novel (Head of State, which will be coming out this year) is, in form if not necessarily in content, a literary novel — in fact it belongs to the form of the Menippean satire, a term which I hadn’t come across til after finishing it. There’s one point in which, I realised after writing it, the story is being told by a nest of unreliable narrators seven deep, the form of the book affects the action, characters break the fourth wall, and all that postmodern and magical realist stuff I like to play with. If you’ve read my book on Seven Soldiers, imagine that, but a novel, and you’ve got the basic idea.

By contrast, this new book is different. While I plan to make it as good and interesting as it can be, and I wouldn’t be writing it if I wasn’t genuinely excited by the idea, the form it needs to be is the men’s adventure novel. It needs to fit a particular genre — and the closer it fits the genre the better — and it has to be an action-packed page-turner. There are spies, and plane crashes, and daring escapes and rescues and so forth.

Now, because I want to write the book well, that means learning to write in this genre (one which doesn’t come at all naturally to me), so I’ve been reading a lot of books on how to write pulp genre fiction, usually books written by people who make a living doing that. I’ve been wanting tips on structure, pacing, and so on, because I’ve never really read this kind of book very much, and I don’t know what the genre conventions are.

The surprising thing that I’ve been getting from the books, podcasts, and so on that I’ve been reading and listening to is the way in which most of them rely on the same advice you’d get from university creative writing courses. Even while many of these writers take pride in writing a novel a month, and being able to churn out genre hackery to order (and note that I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense *at all* — they are working hard and producing something people enjoy; it’s not my thing, but I won’t criticise others for it), they talk about the creative process in much the same way that serious literary writers do.

In particular, one piece of advice I’ve seen in these books that I’ve also seen in serious academic work by creative writing lecturers is “all story is about character — about how characters relate to each other, and about how characters change. Your principal character must change during the story, and that change must be the focus of the story. All else is secondary to that”.

And I think that is dead wrong. As my hand is seizing up now, I’ll explain why tomorrow.

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10 Responses to Sherlock Holmes and the Cult of Characterisation, Part 1 of ?

  1. I’m suspicious of anyone who says that there’s a best or only way to write fiction. As I’m sure you’re going to say in the rest of the series, there are lots of different ways of writing and reading. Even if the focus is on characters, there are different ways of approaching characterisation. I don’t think it’s always obvious what people mean when they say that something has good characterisation, so that would be worth exploring.

    • Absolutely agreed with all of that.

      • plok says:

        Apollinaire would agree, too! His story “The Eagle” I was fortunate to read at just the very time I felt like if stories had to be just this or just that then I didn’t know how I could go on writing them…

        There are lots of furious dicta out there. “Show Don’t Tell” is one I particularly dislike, not because it’s wrong to show instead of tell but because it isn’t always wrong to tell instead of show. Like the man said:

        “The only way to write is well, and how you do it is your own bloody business!”

        • Yes! I hate “show don’t tell” dogma too. I don’t think there’s even any consensus among its supporters about what it actually means in practice. Whenever someone cites a rule of writing, it’s easy to find some famous writer from the literary canon who has broken it to good effect.

        • Mike Taylor says:

          “My personal advice is don’t overdo, or underdo, anything in your writing. Do it exactly right” — Jane MacDonald.

  2. dm says:

    RSI sufferer or massive tease?
    Of course I’m kidding, RSI is total agony.

    I agree with you, but I’m interested to hear your particular argument. I find that, even if we do make character the core of the story, this idea that they must “change” is incredibly silly. Take a film like Day for Night, a couple of the characters do a bunch of melodramatic things (the actors), but the central point seems to be that they don’t change at all, this is a routine for them that they go through whenever they make a film. This is made clear when one character dies and, after the briefest reflection, they all return to the routine and fill the gap however they can. Truffaut’s character, essentially our lead, does not go through anything, least of all “change”.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      “Even if we do make character the core of the story, this idea that they must “change” is incredibly silly.”

      Eight incredible successful series of House say that you’re dead right. It’s almost the point of that show that nothing the eponymous character experiences ever changes him.

  3. This is a series I’ll be particularly interested in reading (not that I don’t find all your stuff interesting, of course). But this is particularly well-timed, as I’ve just started writing about Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s third season, and one of the biggest changes Michael Piller brings to the writing staff (and the thing he’s most lauded for) is his declaration that every story must explicitly relate to one of the main characters somehow. A major theme of my blog going forward is going to be piecing out precisely what that means, what Piller may have intended by it and how it shifts the perception of what Star Trek: The Next Generation was about.

    So this is something that’s been on my mind a lot recently, because I’m with you in the sense I don’t think this is a hard-and-fast requirement either. One of the strongest arguments I think I made when talking about Dirty Pair is how that series conveys characterization essentially through very specific subtext we’re very obviously meant to notice and take as read: We don’t need stories about Kei and Yuri’s interiority because everything we need to know about them personally is perfectly obvious if we know how to read between the lines. Similarly, in that quote from Hayao Miyazaki I love to throw around he says that over the course of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind Nausicaä herself doesn’t change or grow one bit; we just get to know her better. I like that, and I think it’s an especially effective narrative tool when used in the context of utopian fiction. I’m really excited to read your take on it.

  4. David Lewis says:

    Writing to character: only chandler got away with it, and maybe wodehouse. Its a stupid trend which requires you to continually put your characters into situations, not have your situation tell the story. Doyle, who youve alluded to always put holmes and watson into great stories (or at least stories which should have been great). I doubt he sat there and thought ‘should holmes have a love interest? ’. I call it ‘writeritis’. Its ruining so many books, shows and movies.

    Lets go back to plot first, characters second. A great character will shine. A bad plot never will.

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